Facebook is under fire after thousands of pages of internal documents released recently by a whistleblower show that the company had done extensive research on the negative impact of its social media platforms on children’s mental health and the spread of false information, but failed to act on any of those findings. That whistleblower, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, testified before Congress on Oct. 5, claiming the company—which also owns the Instagram photo-sharing platform—knew that its practices harmed children and fueled the spread of misinformation.
The hearing follows in the wake of hard-hitting reporting from the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets about the practices used by Facebook and Instagram to engage users. Previous coverage in Education Week also outlined concerns about the use of Facebook and by K-12 students.
The new spotlight on Facebook and Instagram raises an important question: How can educators help ensure their students are armed with the tools they need to protect themselves and others when using these platforms?
Here are 8 tips for educators, based on Haugen’s testimony and Education Week reporting.
1. Explain how social media algorithms work
This is a critical and fascinating area of computer science and media literacy that is at the heart of how many social media tools work. They are driven by algorithms that are set up to maximize use of their sites. They want users returning regularly, engaging with increasing numbers of people, and buying products advertised on their sites. Some research shows that the engagement tools they use can actually prompt a psychological rush. That kind of effect can lead to social media addictions and even depression, some experts point out.
2. Teach “lateral reading” skills
When students find an unfamiliar source of information, they shouldn’t first spend time trying to analyze the information, but rather see what other trusted sources say about this new source.
“You have to have pretty deep content knowledge to approach anything on any topic and analyze it for bias,” as suggested in new RAND standards for media literacy, Sarah McGrew, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College Park’s College of Education, who studies the spread of online misinformation, said in a January Education Week article.
“Lateral reading” encourages students to recognize that they don’t know everything, she said, and to rely on experts when appropriate. Teaching students this skill is the first standard on RAND’s list: “Recognize limitations of one’s own knowledge or understanding of the facts.”
3. Teach kids how to monitor and evaluate their own use of Facebook and Instagram
Facebook has studied a problem it calls “problematic use,” but that most others would probably call addiction, Haugen told members of a U.S. Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation subcommittee. The company “has a very high bar” for that designation. Users have to self-identify that that they don’t have control over their usage, that it is materially harming their mental health, their schoolwork or their physical health. Haugen said that 5 to 6 percent of 14-year-olds have the self-awareness to admit to those problems but added that “it is likely that far more than five to six percent of 14-year-olds are addicted to Instagram.” The company, though, is ignoring that data, Haugen said.
4. Help students understand that Facebook, Instagram, and other social media tools are changing relationships and impacting their mental health
“Instagram dramatically changes the experience of high school,” Haugen said. In the past, “most kids had positive home lives” and could come home and reset from the social pressures of high school, she explained. But now, “bullying follows them home. It follows them into their bedroom. The last thing they see before they go to bed at night is someone being rude to them,” she said. “Kids are learning that their own friends, people they care about,” can be hurtful. She wondered how that would impact their relationships later in life.
5. Teach students how to be critical evaluators of images as well as text
There has been a lot of coverage recently about how the use of Instagram is leading to teenage eating disorders, especially among girls, driven largely by social media images that are not always what they appear to be. Kids need to learn how to determine how photos are altered, realizing that such images “promote an artificial beauty ideal that negatively affects body image,” according to Common Sense Media. The organization adds that educators must teach students how to identify unrealistic body image ideals and counteract them, which will help kids and educators become more social media literate.
6. Students and educators should know that Facebook has blurred the line between fake and real, specifically for teenage audiences
A 2018 Education Week story, “With Risky Teen Drama, Facebook Further Blurs the Line Between Real and Fake,” showed that Facebook had created a drama series called SKAM Austin about a high school that made it seem like a real high school, when in fact it was not. Facebook downplayed the idea that viewers might mistakenly think the show is real, citing its music cues, scene cuts, and slow-motion effects.
7. Show students how to differentiate between fact and opinion or rumor
Unfortunately, Facebook users often share content without reading it themselves, spreading misinformation. Students need to understand that they play a role in curbing the spread of misinformation, even though this is also a huge problem among adults. Teach students how to vet content before they share it. That is what responsible social media use should look like.
8. Help students understand that social media companies like Facebook are trying to profit from their engagement
This was a big part of Haugen’s testimony.
“Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users, they have to make sure that that next generation is just as engaged on Instagram as the current one,” she said. “And the way they’ll do that is by making sure that children establish habits before they have good self-regulation … It’s just like cigarettes. [Teenagers] say they feel bad when they use Instagram but can’t stop.”
Facebook Responds to Criticism
Facebook maintains that Haugen’s allegations are misleading and insists there is no evidence to support the premise that it is a major cause of social polarization.
“Even with the most sophisticated technology, which I believe we deploy, even with the tens of thousands of people that we employ to try and maintain safety and integrity on our platform, we’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100 percent of the time,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of policy and public affairs, said Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
That’s because of the “instantaneous and spontaneous form of communication” on Facebook, Clegg said, adding, “I think we do more than any reasonable person can expect to.”